History of Literature









E. H. Gombrich




"World History for Children"




 


Part V
 

 

26 A New Age

The burghers of Florence - Humanism - The rebirth of antiquity -The flowering of art - Leonardo da Vinci - The Medici -Renaissance popes - New ideas in Germany - The art of printing -Gunpowder - The downfall of Charles the Bold - Maximilian, the Last Knight - Mercenaries - Fighting in Italy - Maximilian and Durer

 


The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci

 

Have you ever come across an old school exercise book, or something else you once wrote and, on leafing through it, been amazed at how much you have changed in such a short time? Amazed by your mistakes, but also by the good things you had written? Yet at the time you hadn't noticed that you were changing. Well, the history of the world is just the same.

How nice it would be if, suddenly, heralds were to ride through the streets crying: 'Attention please! A new age is beginning!' But things aren't like that: people change their opinions without even noticing. And then all of a sudden they become aware of it, as you do when you look at your old school books. Then they announce with pride: 'We are the new age.' And they often add: 'People used to be so stupid!'

Something of the sort happened after 1400 in the cities of Italy. Especially in the large and prosperous cities of central Italy, and in Florence in particular. They had guilds there too, and had built a great cathedral. But Florence had none of the noble knights that were to be found in France and Germany. For a long time Florentine burghers had ignored the commands ol their German emperors, and by now they were as free and independent as the citizens of ancient Athens. And as the years went by these free and prosperous burghers, shopkeepers and craftsmen had come to care about entirely different things from those that had mattered to the knights and craftsmen of the Middle Ages.

To be a warrior or a craftsman and dedicate one's life to the service and glory of God was no longer every man's aim. What mattered was to be someone in your own right, to have a head on your shoulders and know how to use it. To think and judge for yourself. To act on your own authority, without the need to consult others. And, rather than resorting to old books to find out how things were done in the past, to use your own eyes and act accordingly. That's what it really came down to: using your eyes and acting accordingly. Independence, ability, intellect, knowledge and skill were what counted. People no longer asked first about your rank, your profession, your religion or what country you came from. They said: tell us what you can do.

And suddenly, in about 1420, the Florentines noticed that they were no longer the people they had been in the Middle Ages. They had different concerns. They found different things beautiful. To them the old cathedrals and paintings seemed gloomy and rigid, the old traditions irksome. And, in their search for something more to their liking, something free, independent and unconstrained, they discovered antiquity. And I mean literally discovered. It mattered little to them that the people of those times had been heathens. What astonished them was what those people could do. How they had freely and openly debated and discussed, with arguments and counter-arguments, everything in nature and the world. How everything interested them. These people were to serve as their models.
A great search for books written in Latin began, and people strove to write Latin that was as clear and as precise as that of the ancient Romans. They also learnt Greek and so discovered the wonderful works of the Athenians of the time of Pericles. Soon people were more interested in Themistocles and Alexander, in Gaesar and in Augustus than in Charlemagne or Barbarossa. It was as if the entire period since antiquity had been nothing but a dream, as if the free city of Florence were about to become an Athens or a Rome. People suddenly felt they were witnessing a rebirth of the ancient, long-gone era of Greek and Roman culture. They themselves felt born again through the discovery of these ancient works. And this is why this period in history came to be known in Italy as the Rinascimento, or as we know it from the French, the Renaissance - the re-birth. Everything that had happened in between they blamed on the barbarian Germanic tribes who had destroyed the empire. The Florentines were determined to do all they could to revive the spirit of antiquity.

They were enthusiasts for everything Roman, for the superb statues and the magnificent and imposing buildings whose ruins lay all over Italy. Previously dismissed as 'heathen ruins', these had been shunned and feared. Now people suddenly rediscovered their beauty. And the Florentines once more began to build with columns.

But people didn't just seek out old things. They looked at nature again, this time with the fresh and unprejudiced eyes of the Athenians, two thousand years before them. And when they did so they discovered a new beauty in the world, in the sky and trees, in human beings, flowers and animals. They painted these things as they saw them. The solemn grandeur and spirituality of the illustrations to sacred texts in monks' books and cathedral windows now gave way to a style that was natural and spontaneous, full of colour and vitality, yet accurate and true to life as they intended. Using your eyes and acting accordingly also made for the best art. Which might explain why the greatest painters and sculptors were to be found in Florence at this time.

Nor did these painters merely sit down before their paintings like good craftsmen and represent what they saw. They wanted to understand what it was that they were painting. In Florence there was one artist in particular for whom painting good paintings was not enough, no matter how beautiful they might be. And his were far and away the finest. He wanted to have a perfect understanding
of all the things he painted and how they related to each other. This painter's name was Leonardo da Vinci. He lived from 1452 to 1519 and was the son of a farm servant-girl. He wanted to know how a person looked when they cried and when they laughed, and also what the inside of a human body was like - the muscles, bones and sinews. So he asked hospitals to give him the bodies of people who had died, which he then dissected and explored. This was something quite unheard of at the time. And he did not stop there. He also looked at plants and animals in a new way and puzzled over what makes birds able to fly. This led him to think about whether people, too, might not be able to fly. He was the first person to carry out an accurate and precise investigation into the possibility of constructing an artificial bird or flying machine. And he was convinced that one day it would be done. He was interested in everything in nature. Nor did he limit himself to the writings of Aristotle and the Arab thinkers. He always wanted to know if what he read was really true. So, above all, he used his eyes, and with those eyes he saw more than anyone had ever seen before, because he was always asking himself questions about what he observed. Whenever he wanted to know about something - for example, why whirlpools happen or why hot air rises - he did an experiment. He had little time for the learned writings of his contemporaries and was the first person to investigate the secrets of nature by means of experiments. He made sketches and noted down his observations on scraps of paper and in a vast accumulation of notebooks. Leafing through his jottings today, one is constantly amazed that a single human being could investigate and analyse so many different things, things about which nothing was known at the time and few cared to know about. Yet few of his contemporaries had any inkling of the many discoveries that this famous painter was making, or knew of his novel ideas. He was left-handed and wrote in minuscule mirror-writing, a reversed script, which is far from easy to read. This was probably intentional, for in those days it was not always safe to hold independent opinions. Among his notes we find the sentence: 'The sun does not move.' No more than that. But enough to tell us that Leonardo knew that the earth goes round the sun, and that the
sun does not circle the earth each day, as had been believed for thousands of years. Perhaps Leonardo limited himself to this one sentence because he knew it didn't say so in the Bible, and that many people believed that what the Bible had to say about nature must never be contradicted, even though the ideas it contained were those of Jews who had lived two thousand years earlier, when the Bible was first written down.

But it wasn't only the fear of being thought a heretic that led Leonardo to keep all his wonderful discoveries to himself. He understood human nature all too well and knew that people would only use them to kill each other. Elsewhere there is a note in Leonardo's handwriting which reads: 'I know how one can stay under water and survive a long time without food. But I will not publish this or reveal it to anyone. For men are wicked and would use it to kill, even at the bottom of the sea. They would make holes in the hulls of ships and sink them with all the people in them.' Sadly, the inventors who came after him were not all great men like Leonardo da Vinci, and people have long known what he was unwilling to show them.

In Leonardo's time there lived in Florence a family that was exceptionally rich and powerful. They were wool merchants and bankers, and their name was Medici. Like Pericles in ancient Athens, it was they who, through their advice and influence, dictated the course of the history of Florence throughout virtually the whole period between 1400 and 1500. Foremost among them was Lorenzo de' Medici, known as 'the Magnificent' because he made such wonderful use of his great wealth, and gave his support and protection to so many artists and scholars. Whenever he came across a gifted young man he instantly took him into his household and had him educated. A description of the customs of Lorenzo's household gives you an idea of how people thought at the time. There was no seating order at table. Instead of the eldest and most respected sitting at the top of the table above the rest, it was the first to arrive who sat with Lorenzo de' Medici, even if he were no more than a young painter's apprentice. And even an ambassador, if he came last, took his place at the loot of the table.

This entirely new delight in the world, in talented people and beautiful things, in the ruins and books of the Greeks and Romans, soon spread out from Florence in all directions, for people are always quick to learn about new discoveries. Great artists were summoned to the pope's court - which was by now once more in Rome - to build palaces and churches in the new style and to adorn them with paintings and statues. This was especially the case when rich prelates from the Medici family became pope. They then brought Italy's greatest artists to Rome, where they created their most important works. To be sure, this totally new way of looking at things did not always sit comfortably with the old piety. Popes of this period were not so much priests and guardians of the souls of Christendom as magnificent princes, intent on the conquest of the whole of Italy, who meanwhile lavished colossal sums of money on glorious works of art for their capital city.

This sense of a rebirth of pagan antiquity gradually spread to the cities of Germany, France and England. There, too, people began to take an interest in the new ideas and forms, and to read the new Latin books. This had become much easier and cheaper since 1450. For in that year a German made a great invention, one no less extraordinary than the invention of letters by the Phoenicians. This was the art of printing. It had long been known in China and for some decades in Europe that you could rub black ink on carved wood and then press it on paper. But Gutenberg's invention was different. Instead of printing from whole blocks of wood, he made single letters out of metal, which could be lined up and held in a frame and then printed from as many times as one wished. When the desired number of copies of a page had been made, the frame could be undone and the letters used again in a different order. It was simple and it was cheap. And of course much simpler and much cheaper than when people spent long years laboriously copying books by hand, as Roman and Greek slaves and the monks had had to do. Soon a whole host of printers had sprung up in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and printed books, Bibles and other writings were eagerly bought and read, not just in Europe's cities, but in the countryside as well.

However, another invention of the time was to have an even greater impact on the world. This was gunpowder. Once again, the Chinese had probably known about it for a long time, but they mostly used it to make fireworks. It was in Europe, from 1300 onwards, that people began to use it in cannons for shooting at fortresses and men. And before long, soldiers were carrying massive and cumbersome guns in their hands. Bows and arrows were still much faster and more effective. A good English bowman could release 180 arrows in fifteen minutes, which was roughly the time it took for a soldier to load his thunderbox, set a slow-match to the charge and fire it once. Despite this, guns and cannons were already in evidence during the Hundred Years War, and after 1400 their use became widespread.

But such weapons were not for knights. There was nothing chivalrous about firing a bullet into a man's body from a distance. As you know, what knights did was to gallop towards one another and try to knock each other out of the saddle. Now, to protect themselves against the bullets, they had to abandon their chain mail in favour of increasingly heavy and solid armour. Dressed in this from top to toe they looked like iron men and must have been a fearsome sight. But the armour was unbearably hot and impractical and the knights could hardly move. For this reason, no matter how bravely they (ought, they were no longer so intimidating. In 1476 a famous, warlike knight and prince of the Duchy of Burgundv - known as Charles the Bold on account of his fearlessness - led an armv of knights in armour to conquer Switzerland. But when thev got there the free peasants and burghers of Murten surprised them and, righting on foot, simply knocked all the knights off their horses and clubbed them to death. They then made off with all the magnificent and valuable tents and rugs that the knights had brought with them on their campaign of conquest. You can see these today in Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Switzerland remained free, and the knights had had their day.


Portrait of Maximilian I, by Albrecht Durer


This is why the German emperor who was ruling around 1500 is known as the Last Knight. His name was Maximilian, and he was a member of the Habsburg family, whose might and wealth had grown steadily since the time of King Rudolf. Since 1438 their power had spread beyond their own country of Austria, and such was their influence that all the German emperors who had been elected since then had been Habsburgs. Nevertheless, the German noblemen and princes gave most of them a good deal of trouble, and Maximilian the Last Knight was no exception. They exercised almost unlimited power over their fiefdoms and had become increasingly reluctant to accompany their emperor into battle when he commanded them to do so.

With the arrival of money and cities and gunpowder, the granting of land with bonded peasants in return for military service had become as outdated as chivalry. Which is why, when Maximilian went to fight the French king for his Italian possessions, he took paid soldiers instead of his vassals. Soldiers like these were called mercenaries. They were rough, rapacious brutes who strutted about in outlandish costumes and thought of little but plunder. And since they fought tor money rather than for their country, they went to the person who paid them most. This cost the emperor a great deal of money that he didn't have, so he was forced to borrow from rich merchants in the towns. And this in its turn meant that he had to keep on good terms with the towns, which upset the knights who felt increasingly unwanted and unneeded.

Such problems gave Maximilian a headache. Like the knights of old he would far rather have ridden in tournaments and composed fine verses about his adventures to present to his beloved. He was a strange mixture of the old and the new. For he was very taken with the new art, and was always asking the great German painter, Albrecht Durer - who had learnt a lot from the Italians, but had taught himself even more - to make paintings and engravings in his honour. Through these wonderlul portrait paintings by the first of the new German artists, we can actually see what the Last Knight looked like. These works, together with the paintings and buildings of the great Italian artists, are in fact the 'heralds' who cried: 'Attention please! A new age has begun!'
And if we called the Middle Ages a starry night, we should look upon this new, wide-awake time, which began in Florence, as a bright, new dawn.

 

 

27 A New World

The compass - Spain and the conquest of Granada - Columbus and Isabella - The discovery of America - The modern era - Columbus's fate - The conquistadores - Hernando Cortez - Mexico - The fall of Montezuma - The Portuguese in India

 


The great sea voyage that Columbus undertook was rather short if you compare it with the journey he had intended to make. The best way to compare the two is by looking at the globe from the north pole outwards.

 

What until now we have called the history of the world is in fact the history of no more than half the world. Most of the events took place around the Mediterranean - in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa. Or not far from there: in Germany, France and England. We have cast the odd glance eastwards, towards China's well-defended empire, and towards India, which, during the period that now concerns us, was ruled by a Muslim royal family. But we haven't bothered with what lies to the west of old Europe, beyond Britain. No one bothered with it. A handful of northern seafarers on their raids once glimpsed an inhospitable land, far out in the west, but they soon turned back, for there was nothing there worth taking. Intrepid mariners like the Vikings were few, and in any case, who would dare set out across the unknown, and possibly never-ending ocean, leaving behind them the coasts of England, France and Spain?

This hazardous enterprise only became possible with a new invention. This, too - and I nearly added 'of course'! - came from China. It was the discovery that a piece of magnetised iron hanging freely always turns towards the north. You will have guessed what it is: a compass. The Chinese had long used compasses in their journeys across deserts, and now news of this magical instrument leaked out via the Arabs and eventually reached Europe during the Crusades, in about 1200. But at that time the compass was rarely used. People were puzzled and frightened by it. But gradually their fear gave way to curiosity — and something more than curiosity. For in those far-off lands there might be treasures, undiscovered riches there for the taking. Yet no one dared set out across the western ocean. It was too immense and too unknown. And what might lie on the other side?

It so happened that a penniless but adventurous and ambitious Italian from Genoa, called Columbus, who had spent much time poring over ancient books of geography, was obsessed with this idea. Where indeed might you end up if you kept on sailing westwards? Why, you would end up in the east! For wasn't the earth round, shaped like a sphere? It said so in several of the writings of antiquity. And if by sailing westwards you went halfway round the world and then landed in the east, you would be in China, in the fabulous Indies, lands rich in gold and ivory and rare spices. And, with the help of a compass, how much simpler it would be to sail across the ocean than to make a long and arduous journey across deserts and over fearsome mountain ranges as Alexander had once done, and as the trading caravans still did when they brought silks from China to Europe. With this new route, thought Columbus, the Indies were only days away, rather than months by land. Everywhere he went he told people about his plan, but they just laughed and called him a fool. Still he persisted: 'Give me ships! Give me just one ship and I'll bring you gold from the fabulous east!'

He turned to Spain. There, in 1479, the rulers of two Christian kingdoms had been united by marriage and were engaged in a merciless campaign to expel the Arabs - who, as you know, had ruled in Spain for more than seven hundred years - not only from their wonderful capital, Granada, but from their kingdom altogether. Neither the royal court of Portugal nor that of Spain showed much
enthusiasm for Columbus's plan, but it was put to the learned men and mariners of the famous University of Salamanca for their consideration. After four more years of desperate waiting and pleading, Columbus learned that the university had rejected his plan. He resolved to leave Spain and try his luck in France. On the way he chanced to meet a monk who was none other than the confessor of Queen Isabella of Castile. Fired with enthusiasm for Columbus's project, the monk persuaded the queen to grant him a second audience. But Columbus nearly spoiled it all again. The reward he demanded, if his plan were to succeed, was no small thing: he was to be knighted, appointed Grand Admiral and Viceroy (king's representative) of all the lands he discovered, and he would keep a tenth of all taxes levied there, and more besides. When the monarchs turned down his request he left Spain immediately for France. If he discovered any lands, these would now belong to the French king. This frightened Spain. The monarchs gave in and Columbus was recalled. All his demands were met. He was given two sailing ships in poor condition - it would be no great loss if they sank. And he rented a third himself.

And so he set sail across the ocean towards the west, on and on, always westwards, determined to reach the East Indies. He had left Spain on 3 August 1492 and was delayed for a long time on an island repairing one of his ships. Then on they went again, further and further towards the west. But still no sight of the Indies! His men grew restless. Their impatience turned to despair and they wanted to turn back. Rather than tell them how far they were from home, Columbus lied to them. At last, on 11 October 1492, at two o'clock in the morning, a cannon fired from one of the ships signalled' Land ahoy!'

Columbus was filled with pride and joy. The Indies at last! The friendly people on the shore must be Indians, or, as the Spanish sailors called them, 'Indios!' Now, of course, you know that he was wrong. Columbus was nowhere near India, but on an island off America. Thanks to his mistake we still call the original inhabitants of America 'Indians' and the islands where Columbus landed the 'West Indies'. The real India (or East Indies) was still an interminable distance away. Much further than Spain was behind them. Columbus would have needed to sail on for at least another two months, and it is likely that he would have perished miserably with all his men and never reached his goal. But at the time he thought he was in the Indies, so he took possession of the island in the name of the Spanish Crown. During his later voyages he interminable distance away. Much further than Spain was behind them. Columbus would have needed to sail on for at least another two months, and it is likely that he would have perished miserably with all his men and never reached his goal. But at the time he thought he was in the Indies, so he took possession of the island in the name of the Spanish Crown. During his later voyages he continued to maintain that the lands he had discovered were the Indies. He couldn't bring himself to admit that his grand idea was a mistake, that the earth was much bigger than lie had imagined. The land route to the Indies was far shorter than the voyage across the whole of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. He could only think of being Viceroy of the Indies, the lands of his dreams.

You may know that it is from this date, 1492 - the year in which that fanciful adventurer Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered America only because it was in his way, as it were - that the Modern Age is said to begin. The date chosen to mark the beginning of the Middle Ages, 467, might seem a more obvious choice. For that was the year when the Roman Empire of the West fell, together with its last emperor - the one with the curious name: Romulus Augustulus. But in 1492 absolutely no one, not even Columbus, had any idea that this voyage might mean more than a new source of gold from unknown lands.


Columbus Appearing Before Queen Isabella and the Spanish Court

Of course, on his return Columbus was given a hero's welcome, but during his later voyages his pride and his ambition, his greed and his wild imaginings made him so unpopular that the king had his own viceroy and admiral arrested and brought home from the West Indies in chains. Columbus kept those chains for the rest of his life, even after he was returned to royal favour, honour and riches. It was an insult he could neither forget nor forgive.

The first Spanish ships carrying Columbus and his companions had discovered only islands, whose simple and good-natured inhabitants had little to offer them. All that interested the Spanish adventurers was the source of the gold rings that some of them wore through their noses. The islanders gestured towards the west, and so America was discovered. For the Spaniards were actually in search of the fabled land of Eldorado. Convinced of its existence, they had visions of whole cities roofed with gold. These conquistadores, as they were called, who left Spain in search of new lands to conquer for their king and to enrich themselves with loot, were rough fellows, little better than pirates. Driven by their insatiable greed into ever more crazy adventures, they exploited and deceived the natives at every turn. Nothing could deter them and no means were too foul wherever gold was concerned. They were indescribably brave and indescribably cruel. And the saddest thing of all is that, not only did these men call themselves Christians, but they always maintained that all the atrocities they committed against heathens were done for Christendom.

One conqueror in particular, a former student of law named Hernando Cortez, was possessed by the wildest ambition. He wanted to march deep into the heart of the country and seize all its legendary treasures. In 1519 he left the coast at the head of 150 Spanish soldiers, thirteen horsemen and a few cannons. The Indians had never seen a white man before. Nor had they seen a horse. Horrified by the cannons, they were convinced that the Spanish bandits were powerful magicians, or even gods. Still, they made many brave attempts to defend themselves, attacking the soldiers by day as they marched and in their camp at night. But from the outset Cortez took terrible revenge, setting fire to villages and killing Indians in their thousands.

Beiore long, messengers came from a mighty king whose country lay further inland. They begged him to turn back and gave him magnificent gifts of gold and feathers of many colours. But the gifts only served to increase his curiosity and his greed. So on he marched, enduring unimaginable hardships, and forcing many Indians into his army as great conquerors had always done. At last he came to the kingdom of the mighty king who had sent the messengers with their gifts. The king's name was Montezuma, and his land was called Mexico, as was its capital city. Montezuma waited respectfully tor Cortez and his small force outside the city, which stood on an island at the centre of a great chain of lakes. The Spaniards were astonished when they were led across a long causeway into the city and saw the splendour, beauty and might of this great capital that was as big as any city in Europe. It had wide, straight streets and a great number of canals and bridges. And there were many squares and great marketplaces to which tens of thousands of people came each day to buy and sell.

In his report to the king of Spain Cortez wrote:Here they trade in all kinds of merchandise: in foodstuffs and in jewellery made of gold, silver, pewter, brass, bone, mussel and lobster shell and feathers, in cut and uncut gems, in lime and brick, in timber, both rough and prepared ...' In some streets, he says, they sell nothing but birds and animals of all kinds, while in others they sell infinite varieties of plants. He talks of pharmacies and barbers' shops, bakeries and inns, merchants selling rare garden plants and fruits, utensils and pigments for painting, and how, in the marketplace, three judges always sat, ready to settle any dispute as it arose. And he describes the city's monumental temples, each in itself as big as a town, with their tall towers and brightly decorated rooms covered in huge and terrifying depictions of gods to whom dreadful human sacrifices were made.

He was particularly impressed by Montezuma's royal palace. Spain, he said, had nothing to compare with it. This palace was several storeys high, raised on pillars faced with jasper, its vast halls enjoying views as far as the eye could see. Beneath it stretched a fine park, with bird-ponds and a great zoo in which all sorts of wild animals were caged. Montezuma was attended by a sumptuous court of high-ranking officials who showed him the greatest deference. He changed his dress four times a day, always appearing in new and different robes never to be worn again. One approached him with one's head bowed, and when he was carried through the streets of Mexico in a sedan chair, the people had to throw themselves to the ground before him and must never be seen to look upon his face.

Cortez used guile to trap this mighty sovereign. As if paralysed by their disrespect and insolence, Montezuma didn't lift a finger against the white intruders. For according to an ancient saying, white gods, sons of the sun, would one day come from the east to take possession of Mexico, and Montezuma believed the Spaniards to be these gods. In fact they behaved more like white devils. They took advantage of a ceremony in a temple to attack and kill all the Mexican nobility, knowing that they would be unarmed. In the ensuing revolt Cortez forced Montezuma to appeal to the angry crowds from the palace roof. But the people ignored him. They hurled stones at their own king, and Montezuma fell, mortally wounded. In the carnage that followed, Cortez demonstrated his true courage. For, by some miracle, his little band of Spaniards fled the town in all its uproar and, carrying the sick and wounded, made their way back to the coast through that hostile land. Of course he soon returned with fresh troops and they burned and destroyed the whole of that magnificent city. And that was only the beginning. There and in other parts of America the Spaniards proceeded to exterminate the ancient, cultivated Indian peoples in the most horrendous way. This chapter in the history of mankind is so appalling and so shameful to us Europeans that I would rather not say anything more about it.

Meanwhile the Portuguese had discovered the true sea route to the Indies, where their behaviour was little better than that of the Spaniards. All the wisdom of ancient India meant nothing to them. They too wanted gold, and nothing else would do. In the end, so much gold reached Europe from India and America that burghers grew richer and richer as knights and landowners grew poorer and poorer. And because all the ships sailed out westwards and returned from the west, it was Europe's western ports that benefited most and grew in power and importance. Not only those of Spain and Portugal, but the ports of France and England and Holland as well. However, Germany played no part in these overseas conquests. For they had far too many problems to deal with at home.

 

 

28 A New Faith

The building of the Church of St Peter - Luther's theses - Luther's forerunner, Hus - The burning of the papal bull - Charles V and his empire - The sack of Rome - The Diet of Worms - Luther at the Wartburg - The translation of the Bible - Zwingli - Calvin - Henry VIII - Turkish conquests - The division of the empire

 


Handmade oil painting reproduction of Allegory on the Abdication of Emperor Charles V,  by Frans the younger Francken

 

As you will remember, there were popes ruling in Rome after 1400 who cared more for might and magnificence than for their role as priests, and it was they who commissioned the most famous artists to build beautiful churches. This was especially true of two Medici popes, members of the family that had already done so much for the prestige and adornment of Florence. During their reigns the grandest and most magnificent buildings rose into the skies above Rome. Old St Peter's - a church thought to have been founded by Constantine the Great and in which Charlemagne had been crowned emperor - was too plain for their taste. They planned to build a new church, far bigger and more beautiful than any seen before. But it would cost a great deal of money. Where this money came from mattered less to the popes of the day than getting hold of it and completing their wonderful church. And in their desire to please the pope, priests and monks collected money in a way which did not conform with the teachings of the Church. They made the faithful pay for the forgiveness of their sins, and called it 'selling indulgences'. They did this in spite of the Church's own teaching, according to which only sinners who repented might be forgiven.

Now there was at that time in Wittenberg, in Germany, a monk who belonged to the order of the Augustinians. His name was Martin Luther. When, in 1517, one of these sellers of indulgences came to Wittenberg to collect money for the new St Peter's, whose construction that year was under the supervision of Raphael, the most famous painter in the world, Luther was determined to draw attention to the irreligious nature of this way of raising funds. He nailed a kind of poster to the doors of the church, on which he had written ninety-five theses - or points for discussion — denouncing this trade in divine forgiveness. What shocked Luther most was that people might think that they could atone for their sins with money, that God's free, forgiving mercy could be bought. He had always seen himself as a sinner living, like all sinners, in fear of God's wrath. Only one thing could save him from God's punishment and that was God's infinite mercy which, as Luther believed, could not be bought, for if it could, it would no longer be mercy. Before God, who sees all and knows all, even a good person is a sinner who deserves to be punished. Only faith in God's freely given mercy can save him, and nothing else.

In the bitter arguments that now broke out on the subject of indulgences and their abuse, Luther's opinions took on an increasingly insistent and forceful tone, both in his teaching and his writings. Nothing but faith matters, said Luther. All else is superfluous. And that also goes for the Church and the priests who, when they celebrate Mass, intercede on behalf of the faithful so that they, too, may share in God's mercy. God's mercy needs no intercessors. All an individual needs to be saved is his own unshakable belief and faith in his God. Faith means believing in the great mysteries of the Gospel, believing that we are eating Christ's body and drinking his blood from the chalice when we take Holy Communion. No one can help another person to obtain God's grace. Every believer is, as it were, his own priest. A priest of the Church is no more than a teacher and helper, and as such may live like other men, and even marry. A believer must not be content to accept the teaching of the
Church. He must look to the Bible for God's purpose and seek it out for himself. For, in Luther's opinion, the truth was only to be found in the Bible.

Luther was not the first to have such thoughts. A hundred years earlier a priest called Jan Hus had taught much the same in Prague. In 1415 he was brought before a council of Church dignitaries in Constance, and despite the promise of an imperial safe conduct, was burned as a heretic. Many of his followers were persecuted and killed in a succession of long and bloody battles that devastated half Bohemia.

The same fate might have befallen Luther and his followers, but times had changed. Thanks largely to the invention of the art of printing, Luther's writings were bought and read throughout Germany. They were written in a style that was vigorous and rousing - and often very coarse. Many people were won over by his arguments. When the pope came to hear of it, he threatened to excommunicate Luther. But Luther's following was by now so great that he no longer cared. He burned the pope's letter in public, and then he really was excommunicated. Next he announced that he and his followers had left the Church altogether. Germany was in an uproar, and many people sided with him, for the luxury-loving pope, with all his wealth, was not at all popular in Germany. Nor was there much opposition from the German princes, for if the bishops and archbishops were to lose their power, the Church's vast estates would fall to them. So they, too, joined the Reformation, which was the name that was given to Luther's attempt to reawaken the Christian piety of old.

Now at about this time-that is, in 1519 -the emperor Maximilian, the 'Last Knight', died. His grandson, the Habsburg Charles V, who was also a grandson of the Spanish queen, Isabella of Castile, became the new German emperor. He was just nineteen years old and had never set foot in Germany, having only lived in Belgium, Holland and Spain, which also formed part of his inheritance. As king of Spain he also ruled over newly discovered America, where Cortez had recently made his conquests. And so anyone who wished to flatter him could say that over his kingdom the sun never
set (it being daytime in America when it is night-time here). His vast realm - comprising as it did the ancient hereditary Habsburg lands of Austria, the Low Countries inherited from Charles the Bold of Burgundy, Spain and the German empire - had only one rival in Europe, and this was France. However, the French kingdom, under its able king, Francis I, though far smaller than Charles V's empire, was more united, richer and more stable. These two kings now embarked on a fearfully complicated and long drawn-out war over Italy, the richest country in Europe. Successive popes backed first one, then the other, until finally, in 1527, Rome was sacked and pillaged by the emperor's German troops and Italy's wealth destroyed.

But in 1519, when Charles V first came to power, he was a very devout young man, still on excellent terms with the Pope, and anxious, once his coronation at Aachen was over, to settle the case of the heretic Luther. It would have been simplest to have him arrested, but Frederick, Duke of Saxony, the Prince of Wittenberg, where Luther was living, would not allow it. Known as Frederick the Wise, he was to be Luther's great protector and would one day save his life.

So instead Charles V ordered the rebellious monk to present himself before the first parliament that Charles was to hold in Germany. This was in Worms, in 1521. All the princes and great men of the empire were there, in a solemn and splendid assembly. Luther came before them dressed in his monk's cowl. He had already made it known that he was ready to renounce his teaching if it could be shown from the Bible to be wrong - for as you know, Luther would accept only what was written in the Bible as the word of God. The assembled princes and noblemen had no wish to become trapped in a war of words with this ardent and learned Doctor of Theology. The emperor ordered him to renounce his teaching. Luther asked for a day to think. He was determined to hold fast to his convictions, and wrote at the time to a friend: "Truly, I shall not renounce even one letter of it, and put my trust in Christ.' The next day he appeared again before the assembled princes and noblemen of the parliament and made a long speech in Latin and German, in which he set out his beliefs. He said he was sorry if, in his zeal to defend himself, he had given offence, but recant he could not. The young emperor, who had probably not understood a word, told him to answer the questions clearly and come to the point. To this Luther replied heatedly that only arguments drawn from the Bible would compel him to recant: 'My conscience is bound by the word of God, and for that reason I can and will renounce nothing, for it is dangerous to act against one's conscience ... So help me God. Amen.'
The parliament then passed an edict declaring Luther an outlaw, which meant that nobody was allowed to give him food, aid or shelter. If anyone did, they too would be outlawed, as would anyone caught buying or in possession of his books. Nor would anyone be punished for his murder. He was, as they put it, 'free as a bird'. But his protector, Frederick the Wise, had him kidnapped and taken in secret to his castle, the Wartburg. There Luther lived in disguise and under a false name. He took advantage of his voluntary captivity to work on a German translation of the Bible so everyone could read it and think about its meaning. However, this was not as easy as it sounds. Luther was determined that all Germans should read his Bible, but in those days there was no language that all Germans could read: Bavarians wrote in Bavarian, Saxons in Saxon. So Luther had to invent a language that everyone could understand. And in his translation of the Bible he actually succeeded in creating one that, even after nearly five hundred years, is not all that different from the German that people write today.

Luther stayed in the Wartburg until one day he heard that his speeches and writings were having an effect which did not please him at all. His Lutheran followers had become considerably more violent in their zeal than Luther himself. They were throwing paintings out of churches and teaching that it was wrong to baptise children, because everyone had to decide for themselves whether they wished to be baptised. People called them Iconoclasts and Anabaptists (destroyers of images and re-baptisers). Moreover, there was one aspect of Luther's teaching that had had a
profound effect on the peasants, and which they had taken very much to heart: Luther had taught that each individual should obey the voice of his own conscience and no one else and that, subject to no man, should freely and independently strive for God's mercy. The feudal peasant serfs understood this to mean that they should be free men. Armed with scythes and flails they banded together, killing their landlords and attacking monasteries and cities. Against all these Iconoclasts, Anabaptists and peasants, Luther now turned the full force of his preaching and writings, just as he had previously used them in his attacks on the Church, and so he helped crush and punish the rebel bands. This lack of unity among Protestants, as Luther's followers were called, was to prove very useful to the great, united, Catholic Church.

For Luther wasn't alone in thinking and preaching as he did during those years. In Zurich a priest called Zwingli had taken a similar path, and in Geneva another learned man named Calvin had distanced himself from the Church. Yet despite the similarities of their teachings, their followers could never bring themselves to tolerate, let alone live with, one another.
But now there came a new and even greater loss for the papacy. In England, King Henry VIII was on the throne. He had married Catherine of Aragon, an aunt of the emperor Charles V. But he didn't like her. He wanted to marry her lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, instead. When he asked the pope, as head of the Church, to grant him a divorce, the pope refused. So, in 1533, Henry VIII withdrew his country from the Roman Church and set up a Church of his own, one that allowed him his divorce. He continued to persecute Luther's followers, but England was lost to the Roman Catholic Church for ever. It wasn't long before Henry was tired of Anne Boleyn as well, so he had her beheaded. Eleven days later he remarried, but that wife died before he could have her executed. He divorced the fourth and married a fifth, whom he also had beheaded. The sixth outlived him.

As for the emperor Charles V, he had grown weary of his vast empire, with all its troubles and confusion, and the increasingly savage battles fought in the name of religion. He had spent his life
fighting: against German princes who were followers of Luther, against the pope, against the kings of both England and France, and against the Turks, who had come from the east in 1453 and had conquered Constantinople, capital of the Roman Empire of the East. They had then gone on to lay waste to Hungary and in 1529 had reached the gates of Vienna, the capital of Austria which they besieged without success.

And having grown tired of his empire, along with its sun that never set, Charles V installed his brother Ferdinand as ruler of Austria and emperor of Germany, and gave Spain and the Netherlands to his son Philip. He then withdrew, in 1556, an old and broken man, to the Spanish monastery of San Geronimo de Yuste. It is said that he spent his time there repairing and regulating all the clocks. He wanted them to chime at the same time. When he didn't succeed, he is reported to have said: 'How did I ever presume to try to unite all the peoples of my empire when I cannot, even once, persuade a few clocks to chime together.' He died lonely and embittered. And as for the clocks of his former empire, whenever they struck the hour, their chimes were further and further apart.

 

 

29 The Church at War

Ignatius of Loyola - The Council of Trent -- The Counter Reformation - The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre - Philip of Spain - The Battle of Lepanto - The revolt of the Low Countries - Elizabeth of England - Mary Stuart - The sinking of the Armada - English trading posts in America - The East India Companies - The beginnings of the British empire

 


The Death of Mary Stuart

 

In one of the battles between the emperor Charles V and the French king Francis I, a young Spanish knight was gravely wounded. His name was Ignatius of Loyola. During his long and painful convalescence he thought hard about his past life as a young nobleman, and immersed himself in readings from the Bible and the lives of the saints. And as he did so, the idea came to him that he would change his life. He would continue to be a warrior as he always had been, but he would serve a very different cause: that of the Catholic Church, now so imperilled by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII.

But when he was finally restored to health, he didn't simply go off and fight in one of the many wars that had broken out between Lutherans and Catholics. He took himself to university. There he studied and reflected, and reflected and studied, to prepare himself for the battle he had chosen to undertake. For it seemed clear to him that if you want to conquer others you must first conquer yourself. So with unbelievable severity he worked at mastering himself. Somewhat like the Buddha, but with a different aim in mind. Like the Buddha, Ignatius wished to rid himself of all desires. But rather than seeking release from human suffering here on earth, he wanted to devote himself, body and soul, to the service of the Church. After many years of practice he reached a point at which he could successfully prevent himself from having certain thoughts, or, if he wished, picture something so clearly in his mind that it was as if he saw it there in front of him. His preparation was complete. He demanded no less of his friends. And when they had all achieved the same iron control over their thoughts, they founded an order together called the Society of Jesus. Its members were known as Jesuits.

This little company of select and highly educated men offered itself to the Pope to campaign for the Church, and in 1540 their offer was accepted. Their battle began immediately, with all the strategy and force of a military campaign. The first thing they did was to tackle the abuses that had brought about the conflict with Luther. In a great gathering of the Church held in Trent in the Southern Tirol, which lasted from 1545 to 1563, changes and reforms were agreed that enhanced the power and dignity of the Church. Priests would return to being priests, and not just princes living in splendour. The Church would take better care of the poor. Above all, it would take steps to educate the people. And here the Jesuits, as learned, disciplined and loyal servants of the Church, came into their own. For as teachers they could make their ideas known, not only to the common people, but to the nobility as well through their teaching at universities. Nor was it only through their work as teachers and preachers of the faith in distant lands that their influence spread. In the courts of kings they were frequently employed as confessors. And because they were men of great intelligence and understanding, trained to see into the souls of men, they were well placed to guide and influence the mighty in their decisions.

This movement to re-awaken the piety of old, not through a separation from the Catholic Church, but through the renewal of that Church, and thus to actively challenge the Reformation, is known as the Counter-Reformation. People became very austere and strict during this period of religious warfare. Almost as austere and strict as Ignatius of Loyola himself. The delight Florentines took in their leaders' magnificence and splendour was over. And once again, what was looked for in a man was piety and readiness to serve the Church. Noblemen stopped wearing bright and ample robes and now looked more like monks in severe, black, close-cut gowns and white ruffs, over which their sombre, unsmiling faces tapered away into little pointed beards. Every nobleman wore a sword on his belt and challenged anyone who insulted his honour to a duel.

These men, with their careful, measured gestures and their rigid formality, were mostly seasoned warriors, and never more implacable than when fighting for their beliefs. Germany was not the only land riven by strife between Protestant and Catholic princes. The most ferocious wars were fought in France, where Protestants were known as Huguenots. In 1572 the French queen invited all the Huguenot nobility to a wedding at court, and on the eve of St Bartholomew, she had them assassinated. That's what wars were like in those days.

No one was more stern, more inflexible or more ruthless than the leader of all the Catholics. King Philip II of Spain was the son of the emperor Charles V. His court was formal and austere. Every act was regulated: who had to kneel at the sight of the king and who might wear a hat in his presence. In what order those who dined were to be served at the high table, and in what order the nobles were to enter the church for Mass.

King Philip himself was an unusually conscientious sovereign, who insisted on handling every decision and every letter himself. He worked from dawn to dusk with his advisers, many of whom were monks. His purpose in life as he saw it was to root out all forms of unbelief. In his own country he had thousands of people burned at the stake for heresy - not just Protestants, but Jews and Muslims who had lived there since the time when Spain was under Arab rule. And because he saw himself as Protector and Defender of the Faith, just as the German emperor had before him, he joined forces with a Venetian fleet and attacked the Turks, whose sea power hadn't stopped growing since their conquest of Constantinople. The allied Christians were victorious, and the Turkish fleet was completely destroyed at Lepanto, in 1571.

His war against the Protestants went less well. He may have succeeded in exterminating them at home in Spain, but this was not the case elsewhere. As in his father's time, the Low Countries (meaning Belgium and Holland) were also part of his empire. And many of the burghers who lived there were Protestants, especially in the rich northern towns. He did all he could to make them renounce their faith, but they wouldn't give in. So he sent a Spanish nobleman to be their governor, and he was even more fanatical and inflexible than Philip himself. The Duke of Alba, with his thin, pale face, his narrow pointed beard and icy gaze, was just the sort of warrior that Philip favoured. In cold blood the Duke of Alba sentenced a great number of burghers and noblemen to be hanged. Finally, people could stand it no longer. There was a fierce and bloody battle which ended in 1579 with the liberation of the Protestant towns of the Low Countries and the expulsion of the Spanish troops. Now, as free, rich, independent and enterprising trading cities, they too could try their luck across the seas, in India and America.

But King Philip II of Spain's most cruel defeat was yet to come. In England, Queen Elizabeth I, the daughter of King Henry VIII, was on the throne. Elizabeth was very clever, strong-willed and determined, but she was also vain and cruel. She was determined to defend England against the many Catholics still present in the country whom she persecuted relentlessly. Her cousin, Mary Stuart, the Catholic queen of Scotland, was a woman of great beauty and charm, and she, too, believed she had a right to the English throne. Elizabeth had her imprisoned and executed. Elizabeth also helped the Protestant burghers of the Low Countries in their war against Philip of Spain. Philip was furious. He resolved to conquer England for Catholicism or destroy it.

At immense cost he raised a huge fleet of 130 great sailing ships with around two thousand cannon, and more than twenty thousand men. It takes no time to read, but just try to imagine 130
sailing ships at sea. This was the Invincible Armada. When it set sail from Spain in 1588, loaded with heavy cannon and weaponry and food and supplies for six months, it seemed inconceivable that England's small island might ever succeed in resisting such a mighty force. However, the heavily laden warships were cumbersome and hard to manoeuvre. The English avoided confrontation and darted in and out in their nimbler vessels, attacking the Spanish ships. One night they launched fireships into the midst of the Spanish fleet, creating panic and confusion and sending them in all directions. Many ships drifted along the English coast and went down in severe gales. Barely half the Armada reached home and not one ship succeeded in landing on an English shore. Philip betrayed no sign of his disappointment. It is said that he greeted the commander of the fleet warmly and thanked him, saying: 'After all, I sent you to fight men, not the wind and waves.'

But the English didn't only chase the Spaniards from their own waters. They attacked Spanish merchant ships off America and India and, together with the Dutch, had soon supplanted the Spanish in many of their rich trading ports. Starting in North America, to the north of the Spanish colonies, they established trading posts much as the Phoenicians had once done. And many Englishmen and women who had been persecuted or banished during the conflicts of religion went there to find freedom.

The Indian ports and trading posts were not actually under English and Dutch rule, but were governed by merchants from those two countries who grouped together to do business and bring treasures from the Indies to Europe. These societies of merchants were known as East India Companies. They hired soldiers whom they sent inland, where they punished unfriendly natives and any who refused to part with their goods at a sufficiently low price. This treatment of India's Indians was little better than that shown by the Spanish conquistadores towards the Indians of America. In India, too, the conquest of coastal regions by English and Dutch merchants was made easier by the lack of unity among India's princes. Soon the peoples of North America and India were using the language of a small island off the north-west coast of France. That island was England. A new world empire was taking shape. At the time of the Roman empire, Latin was the language of the world. Now the world would have to learn English.

 

 

30 Terrible Times

The Defenestration of Prague - The Thirty Years War - Gustavus Adolphus - Wallenstein - The Peace of Westphalia - The devastation of Germany - The persecution of witches - The birth of a scientific understanding of the world - Nature's laws - Galileo and his trial

 


Les Miseres et les Malheurs de la Guerre a.k.a. The miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot, 1632

 

If I wished, I could write many more chapters on the wars between Catholics and Protestants. But I won't. It was a dreadful era. Events soon became so confused that people no longer knew why or against whom they were fighting. The Habsburg emperors of Germany - ruling now from Prague, now from Vienna - had no real power outside Austria and part of Hungary. They were pious men who wished to re-establish the sovereignty of the Catholic Church throughout their empire. Nevertheless, they did for a while allow Protestants to hold religious services. Until one day a revolt broke out in Bohemia.

In 1618, discontented Protestants threw three of the emperor's Catholic councillors out of a window at Prague castle. They landed in a pile of manure, and so came to little harm. Nevertheless, this event - known as the Defenestration of Prague - gave the signal for a dreadful war to begin which lasted for thirty years. Thirty years. Just imagine! If someone heard about the Defenestration at the age of ten, they would have had to wait until they were forty to experience peace. If they experienced it! For in no time the war had turned into a dreadful massacre as hordes of ill-paid soldiers from countries far and wide rampaged through the land, looting and killing. The expectation of plunder was what drew the vilest and most brutal men of all nations into the ranks of these armies. Religious faith was long forgotten. Protestants fought in Catholic armies, Catholics in Protestant ones. Friend and foe suffered alike from their rapacity. Wherever they pitched their tents they demanded food and, above all, drink from the local peasants. And if a peasant refused to give them what they wanted, they took it by force, or they killed him. In their improbable patchwork of rags and their great plumed hats, swords dangling from their belts and pistols at the ready, they rode around burning, killing and tormenting the defenceless peasantry out of sheer wickedness and depravity. Nothing could stop them. The only person they would obey was their commander. And if he won their affection, they followed him with blind devotion.

One such commander on the emperor's side was Wallenstein, a poor country nobleman of immense ambition and ability. He led his armies up into north Germany to capture the Protestant towns. Thanks to his skill and strategy, the war was nearly decided in favour of the emperor and the Catholic Church. However, a new country entered the conflict. This was Sweden, under its powerful, pious and Protestant ruler, Gustavus Adolphus. His aim was to rescue the Protestant faith and found a mighty Protestant empire under Sweden's leadership. The Swedes had retaken north Germany and were marching on Austria when, in 1632 (the fourteenth year of this dreadful war), Gustavus Adolphus fell in battle. Nevertheless, many of his battalions reached the outskirts of Vienna and wrought havoc there.

France also joined the war. Now you might think that the French, being Catholics, would have sided with the emperor against the Protestants of north Germany and Sweden. But the war had long stopped being about religion. Each country was out to get what it could from the general confusion. And because the two Habsburg rulers, the emperor of Germany and the king of Spain, were the dominant powers in Europe, the French, under the guidance of their exceptionally intelligent minister, Cardinal Richelieu, hoped to exploit the situation to make France Europe's greatest power. So that's why France's soldiers fought against those of the emperor.

Meanwhile, Wallenstein, as the emperor's general, was at the height of his power. His army worshipped him, and his fierce soldiers fought for him and for the fulfilment of his aims, rather than for the emperor or the Catholic faith, being indifferent to both. The effect of this was that Wallenstein increasingly saw himself as the rightful sovereign. Without him and his troops the emperor was powerless. So he took it upon himself to hold talks with the enemy about a possible peace agreement, and ignored all the emperor's commands. The emperor decided to arrest him. But in 1634, before he could do so, Wallenstein was murdered by an English captain who had once been his friend.

However, the war continued for fourteen more years, becoming increasingly wild and confused. Whole villages were burned, towns plundered, women and children murdered, robbed and abducted. There seemed to be no end to it. The soldiers seized the peasants' livestock and trampled their crops. Famine, disease and roaming packs of wolves made wastelands of great stretches of Germany. And after all these years of appalling suffering, the envoys of the various rulers finally met in 1648 and, after interminable and complicated discussions, agreed on a peace which left things more or less as they had been in the first place, before the Thirty Years War had begun. What had been Protestant would remain Protestant. The lands the emperor controlled - Austria, Hungary and Bohemia - would remain Catholic. With the death of Gustavus Adolphus, Sweden had lost most of the influence it had gained and only held onto a few strips of conquered land in north Germany and on the Baltic coast. Cardinal Richelieu's envoys were alone in succeeding to secure a number of German fortresses and towns near the Rhine for France. Which made the wily French minister the only true victor in a war which hadn't even concerned him.

Germany was devastated. Barely half the population had survived, and those who had were destitute. Many left and made their way to America, while others tried to enlist in foreign armies, since they didn't know about anything but fighting.

On top of all this misery and despair a terrible madness began to infect a growing number of people: the fear of evil spells, of sorcery and witchcraft. People had also been superstitious in the Middle Ages and had believed in all sorts of ghouls and ghosts, as you remember. But it was never as bad as this.

Things had begun to get worse during the time of the power- and splendour-loving popes, the time we know as the Renaissance, when the new St Peter's church was being built and indulgences were sold. Those popes weren't pious, but that only made them all the more superstitious. They were afraid of the Devil and every conceivable form of magic. And each of the popes of the period around 1500, whose names we associate with the most wonderful works of art, was also responsible for chilling decrees calling for witches and sorcerers to be hunted down without mercy, especially in Germany.

You may ask how it is possible to hunt down something that isn't there and never was. And that is precisely why it was so terrible. If a woman wasn't liked in her village - perhaps because she was a little odd, or made people feel uncomfortable - anyone could suddenly say 'That woman's a witch! She's the cause of those hailstorms we've been having!' or 'She gave the mayor his bad back!' (and in fact, both in Italian and in German, people still use the expression 'witch-hurt' when talking about backache). Then the woman would be arrested and interrogated. They would ask her if she was in league with the Devil. Naturally, she would be horrified and deny it. But then they would torture and torment her for so long and in such a dreadful way that, half dead with pain, she would admit to anything in her despair. And that was it. Now that she had confessed to being a witch she would be burned alive. Often while she was being tortured they would ask if there were other witches in the village making magic with her. And in her weakness she might blurt out any name that came into her head, in the hope that the torture would stop. Then others in their turn would be arrested and tortured until they confessed and were burned. Fear of the Devil and witchcraft were rife during the dreadful period after the Thirty Years War. In Catholic and Protestant districts alike, thousands and thousands of people were burned. The few Jesuit priests who protested against this madness were powerless to stop it. People in those days lived in a state of constant fear of the unknown, of magical powers and the works of the Devil. Only this fear can begin to explain the atrocities inflicted on so many thousands of innocent people.

What is most remarkable, however, is that at a time when people were at their most superstitious there were still some who had not forgotten the ideas of Leonardo da Vinci and the other great Florentines, people who went on using their eyes in order to see and make sense of the world. And it was they who discovered the real magic, magic that lets us look into the past and into the future and enables us to work out what a star billions of miles away is made of, and to predict precisely when an eclipse of the sun is due and from what part of the earth it will be visible.

This magic was arithmetic. Of course these people didn't invent it, for merchants had always been able to add and subtract. But they became increasingly aware of the number of things in nature that are governed by mathematical laws. How a clock with a pendulum 981 millimetres long needs exactly one second per swing, and why this is so. They called these the laws of nature. Leonardo da Vinci had already said that 'Nature doesn't break her own laws.' And so it was known with certainty that if you take any natural event and measure and record it precisely, you will discover that, given the same circumstances, the result will always be the same, no matter how often it is repeated - indeed, it cannot be different. This was an extraordinary discovery, and a far greater magic than anything the poor witches were accused of. For now the whole of nature - the stars and drops of water, falling stones and vibrating violin strings - was no longer just one incomprehensible tangle that made people fearful and uneasy. If you knew the correct mathematical formula you had a magic spell for everything. You could say to a violin string: 'To make an A, you must be this long and this tight and move backwards and forwards 435 times in a second.' And the note the string made would prove it.

The first man to understand the extraordinary magical power of applying mathematical calculation to things in nature was an Italian called Galileo Galilei. He had devoted many years to observing, analysing and describing such things when, one day, someone denounced him for writing exactly what Leonardo had observed but not explained. What he had written was this: the sun does not move - on the contrary, it is the earth which moves round the sun, together with the planets. This discovery had already been made by a Polish scholar named Copernicus, after many years of calculation. It had been published in 1543, not long after Leonardo's death and shortly before his own, but the theory had been denounced as un-Christian and heretical by Catholic and Protestant priests alike. They pointed to a passage in the Old Testament in which Joshua, the great warrior, asks God not to let dusk fall until his enemy is destroyed. In answer to his prayer, we read: 'The sun stood still and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves on their enemies.' If the Bible says the sun stood still, people argued, then the sun must normally be in motion. And to suggest that the sun did not move was therefore heretical, and contradicted what was written in the Bible. So in 1632, when he was nearly seventy years old, Galileo, who had devoted his whole life to scholarship, was brought before the religious tribunal known as the Inquisition, and made to choose between being burned as a heretic or renouncing his theory about the movement of the earth around the sun. He signed a declaration saying that he was but a poor sinner, for he had taught that the earth moved round the sun. In this way he avoided being burned, the fate of so many of his predecessors. Nevertheless, when he had signed the declaration, he is said to have muttered under his breath: 'And yet it moves.'

None of these fixed ideas was in the end able to prevent Galileo's ideas and methods and all the discoveries he made from influencing and inspiring people in ever-increasing numbers. And if today, thanks to mathematical formulas, we can make nature do whatever we want, so that we have telephones, aeroplanes and computers, and all the rest of our modern technology, we should
be grateful to all those who, like Galileo, investigated nature's mathematical laws at a time when it was almost as dangerous a thing to do as it was to be a Christian in Nero's day.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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